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Easy Guitar Tab

Article from Making Music, October 1987


As promised last month, an easier way to take musical notes. Adrian Legg introduces the art of Guitar Tablature.

Music notation systems are a means of communication between musicians that save time, effort and money. However, most electric guitarists carry on their music making well clear of the fields of academe. This is no real surprise considering the few incentives to read music usually involve a job at the Speedyglitz Ballrooms and Bingo parlour. So communication is more likely to involve bellowing 'da-da-da-bloody-dum... berk', than laying out a neat set of dots, quavers and tram lines.

But say I have a really good hot lick I want to show you. How do I do it? No way can I come round all your houses and show you, but I could charge you a fiver a go for a tape of it (no, you couldn't — Ed).

Is there a simpler method of getting notes onto paper than traditional musical score? Well, obviously there is otherwise this would be a very short feature. Tablature has been around since the early days of the lute. In fact, much early lute material was written in tab rather than standard notation, and has had to be transcribed back for contemporary classical musicians.

The idea is very simple. For a guitar we have six horizontal lines which represent, from top to bottom, the first to sixth strings (in other words the bottom E is the bottom line). The usual chord chart that you find hovering over the lyrics in a songbook shows the strings vertically with frets drawn across them.

Instead of fret lines, Tablature uses numbers written on the string. So if you needed to play the A string fretted at the fifth fret, there would be a '5' on the second line up from the bottom. An open string is indicated by a zero. Imagine it as a chord shape turned sideways and read from left to right. The tuning is advised at the start of the piece.


So, for example, if I want you to play a simple E major chord, I'd write it thus: (Fig 1).

Here you strum all the notes at once. But supposing I wanted you to pluck one note after the other in a particular order. Suppose, in fact, I wanted you to arpeggiate the chord... drag the pick slowly across it, string by string. Well, since the diagram is on its side, we can read it from left to right, writing in each number a little further to the right of the last one to show it's played after it. Like Fig 2.

But, the problem here is that there's no indication of tempo. How long a gap between each note? How much space between the numbers? I could refer you to an accompanying record (another fiver please, squire), or you could try something like Fig 3.

In this case, I've used the top bits of joined up quavers to indicate a simple count, encasing it in a bar of four beats counted one-&-two-&-three-&-four-&. A bloke called Bob Bater designed a system rather like this about 12 years ago. So now the chord is beginning to take on a firmer shape. Suppose we fancy an A major next, with an E7 en route. I fancy a hammered on little finger on the second string to do the job. Have a pop at Fig 4.

The curved line between the open second string and the stopped second string at the end of the first bar is a slur or tie mark. Coupled with the "H", it indicates that we get this extra note without using the right hand, but by smacking the so far unused left hand pinkie down so the note gets off to a start.

In the second bar, it's just straight across an A major chord, and the slur or tie marks indicate we leave it hanging on till we've counted all through the bar. Slur or tie marks can be used to indicate slides to another note, hammers or pull-offs. Some other instruction on or near the tab will tell you the specific trick to be used.

It's a doddle really, innit? Try the single notes in Fig 5. Though there are many commonly accepted tricks in Tab, it's still quite idiosyncratic. The Kicking Mule series in the seventies used six spaces instead of lines (denoted by seven lines, naturally). They claimed it was easier to see the numbers that way. They didn't use tempo markings either, regarding Tab as a means of helping you to learn by ear from the record rather than a complete communication system in its own right.

They have a point, Tab can give much less information than standard notation. Another way of getting tempo information across was to use note values over the numbers as in Fig 6, a system which could get horribly complicated if you had longer bass notes than treble, for example.

But suppose I want to show you a bend? An old fashioned way in blues tab was to write a "W" over the number, indicating a "wham" or fairly indeterminate sideways shove. If I want to show you a country lick, the bend is going to have to be accurate so I'd go for an extra symbol, because if I just wrote a number down, you wouldn't necessarily know how far to shove it up. I could use an incomplete triangle for a semitone, a whole triangle for a tone, and a whole triangle with an incomplete around it for a tone and a half and a possible busted string.

If I put the triangle around the number, then we all know which note I mean. Fig 7.

Get a good grip on the third string with your left hand 2nd finger as the bend increases to a quite tense last note. This is only the way I'd do it, other people will find different ways, but it will usually be explained. Tab is simply a set of instructions showing you how to do something that might be simple, or might be complicated. If you get the hang of it, maybe we can try a few nice licks another time. Meanwhile, fish out the bottle and have a crack at Martin's stuff in last month's issue. It's free, after all.


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Before You Press Record

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Edwyn Collins


Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Oct 1987

Feature by Adrian Legg

Previous article in this issue:

> Before You Press Record

Next article in this issue:

> Edwyn Collins


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